Stacie B. Royster Miller
Lawyers’ Committee Files Supreme Court Brief Defending Constitutionality of Section
5 of Voting Rights Act in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 v. Holder
March 19, 2009, WASHINGTON, D.C. – Yesterday, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law filed a major brief before the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of the Texas State Conference of the NAACP and the Austin Branch of the NAACP to defend the voting rights of racial and language minorities. Together with co-counsel from the Washington office of the law firm of WilmerHale, the Lawyers’ Committee filed the brief to defend the constitutionality of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 v. Holder,Case No. 08-322.
Section 5, widely recognized as one of the most effective civil rights laws ever passed by Congress, requires federal review before new voting procedures can be used in states with histories of discriminatory voting practices. Section 5 was one of the original provisions of the Voting Rights Act that Congress passed in 1965; since then, Congress reauthorized Section 5 in 1970, 1975, 1982 and most recently, with broad bipartisan support, in 2006. Days after Congress’ 2006 reauthorization was signed into law by President Bush, advocates who intend to limit minority voting rights picked this unique water district to challenge the constitutionality of this significant civil rights act.
The utility district, located in Travis County, Texas, sought to be exempted from Section 5 coverage via the so-called “bailout” provision of the Voting Rights Act, or, in the alternative, to have the reauthorized Section 5 declared unconstitutional. The Texas State Conference of the NAACP and Austin Branch of the NAACP intervened in the case as defendants, along with other interested organizations. The district court dismissed the utility district’s case, ruling last year that the district was ineligible to “bail out” from Section 5 coverage, and more importantly, that Section 5 remains constitutional. The utility district then appealed to the Supreme Court.
“The Lawyers’ Committee/WilmerHale brief, joined by the American Civil Liberties Union, explains the critical role that Section 5 has played since 1965 in allowing minority voters to enter the political process after decades of discrimination and exclusion, and the wide variety of evidence supporting Congress’ conclusion that those gains would be undone if Section 5 expired,” said Jon Greenbaum, legal director, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
The brief emphasizes that although the Supreme Court has announced new doctrines recently to ensure that Congress does not exceed its enforcement powers, nothing in those cases brought into question the Supreme Court’s four previous cases that found Section 5 constitutional. Because Section 5 enforces both the Fifteenth Amendment prohibition of racial discrimination in voting and the Fourteenth Amendment prohibition of racial discrimination, Congress acts at the height of its powers when it decides what legislation is needed to remedy and deter such discrimination.
The case will be argued before the Supreme Court on April 29, 2009 and a decision is expected by the end of the Court’s term in June.